Interview with Jean Rabe
Edward Stasheff, the son of Fantasy Master Christopher Stasheff, and a writer in his own right, contacted me not too long ago and asked if the Mad Genius Club would be interested in hosting an interview with Jean Rabe. I almost broke my fingers answering back yes. I’ll tell you how happy I was, I was replying to an email on my phone. I read emails on my phone, but I hate typing on it, so I usually wait to be back in this office. Not this time. I’d like to heartily thank Ed, and warmly welcome the redoubtable Jean Rabe to the Mad Genius Club. Thank you both!
Jean Rabe (pronounced RAY-BEE) is a prolific science fiction and fantasy author of thirty-one novels and more than seventy short stories, and is particularly well known for her contributions to the Dragonlance series. On top of all that, she’s also edited more than two dozen anthologies, as well as multiple military, gaming, and SFF magazines, including being business manager and then editor of the SFWA Bulletin for several years.
I first met Ms. Rabe in 2012 at ChambanaCon, where she is a regular guest, and found her to be a modest and approachable professional who was willing to talk to aspiring writers and hand out free advice and wisdom (and a free copy of the SFWA Bulletin, which I thought was pretty cool). When the controversy over the SFWA Bulletin arose last year, there was a lot of anger aimed at Ms. Rabe in the SFF blogosphere. This, however, didn’t fit with the friendly and cheerful person I’d met the previous year, and since then I’ve been curious to get her side of the story. When I met her again at ChambanaCon this year, she graciously agreed to be interviewed about her career.
ES: I understand you started off you writing career as a newspaper reporter. Why did you decide to become a journalist?
JR: I wanted to go into some type of writing, and journalism seemed a good avenue. It required the least number of hours per major, which let me pick up a couple of minors. I was really interested in geography and geology, so I could major in journalism and get a heavy science emphasis. I did a lot of news reporting, covered geological surveys, things like that. And then I worked as a crime reporter for a few years.
ES: Why did you decide to transition from being a journalist to a fiction writer and editor?
JR: I honestly got tired of all the blood. I had one editor tell me, “If it’s bloody and within 150 miles of your office, it’s yours.” I got to be really good at covering that kind of stuff, and so… I don’t know, some of the people in the other offices up there were calling me the “Gore Reporter.” I once covered a Satanist who was killing cats in a neighborhood and was threatening the neighbors. He had killed, like, 120 cats. This guy was really scary. Man, that guy gave me the shivers! I’d cover stuff like that. I was getting front page stories all the time, but… you know, you see that kind of stuff enough, and at the end of the day, it was just kinda like, “Yuck!” I don’t know, I did other things—occasionally they’d throw me something happy like covering a concert—but it’s the gore stuff that stood out, and so I was finally like, “You know, I’m tired of this. I’ll write about fictional blood and guts.”
I was going to SF conventions at the same time—I’m absolutely a lifelong fan—and the woman who was running the RPGA, Penny Petticord, called me and said she was going to quit and I should apply for the job. I was like, “Eh… I don’t know… but I’ll go in for an interview.” So I went to the interview and they offered me the job the next day. So I took it. Well, you know, that’s a real departure, working for a game company from being a crime reporter. I did writing and editing for them for a while, then I started writing books, and then I quit to just write books full time.
ES: Do you feel your background as a newspaper reporter and then RPG editor helped prepare you for a successful career as a fiction novelist and editor?
JR: Oh, absolutely.
ES: In what ways?
JR: I had four deadlines a day when I ran a news bureau for Scripps Howard, and because I had four deadlines a day, I could impose my own deadlines on myself for writing fiction. I never missed a deadline in the newspaper business, and I honestly can say I have never missed a deadline for any fiction projects that I have turned in, editing or writing—I just do not miss deadlines. It’s just kind of ingrained, and I believe that my newspaper background made me concrete: if you’re given a deadline to meet, it’s something that’s non-negotiable.
It also made me learn how to read people and how to ask questions. When you’re writing a piece of fiction, with a newspaper background it makes you think more about motives and “does something make sense?” If you’re writing about something that’s got a crime involved, you can look at it from different angles. You know what questions to ask that don’t always have to be asked by the characters, but that do have to be answered in the narrative before the end of the story.
ES: I’ve noticed from your panels that you have a very rigorous approach to researching your novels before writing them. Is that also a carryover from your time as a reporter?
JR: Oh yes. Well, part of it is experience. I’ve learned that the more research that I do, the faster the book writes, and the more accurate it writes. And you have to do a lot of present-day research—buy maps and pick up online newspapers to see, you know, what the price of gas is in that city. I just finished an urban fantasy set in New York City, and so I had to go buy a subway map and detailed city maps, because you need to get it right.
ES: What do you consider to be your most significant contribution to the SFWA Bulletin during your tenure as editor?
JR: I am adamant about deadlines. The magazine hadn’t been on schedule for years. I just thought that was not acceptable, so I put the magazine on schedule. It did not miss a deadline under my tenure.
ES: And what was your perspective on the SFWA Bulletin scandal*, if that’s something you’re comfortable talking about.
JR: Well, you know what? I don’t really consider it a scandal. The whole issue was over an opinion piece—an opinion piece!—by two respected science fiction authors. And what’s wrong with someone expressing an opinion, especially somebody who’s been writing the column for years and years and years? I think some people look for reasons to be offended. And maybe because of my newspaper background, I don’t find offense nor look for offense as fast as perhaps young people now. And maybe after so many years as a crime reporter, I just have a thicker skin than most.
I actually wanted to run the series about women writers and editors. I thought SWFA might be, you know, too much of a boy’s club. So I got the idea for the column approved, then I got the column approved, then I ran the column, and then the shit hit the fan.
ES: Did that catch you by surprise?
ES: And why did you decide to resign? Was that your decision, or—
JR: Oh, it was my decision! I had thought about quitting before then, just because it was taking an inordinate amount of time and I wanted to get back to writing. And I thought, “You know, why should I defend myself over this?” It was an opinion column.
You know, we ran the tribute issue to Gene Wolfe, and people complained about the reprint of the cover piece—Don Maitz was the artist, and so he offered us up that cover piece—and they were complaining that the sword looked phallic. Okay, so they complained about that, they complained about Jeff Easley’s Red Sonja piece—and that’s what it was, it [the cover of SFWA Bulletin #200] was a Red Sonja piece—and had we not pulled the About the Artist page to run an ad, it would even have talked about this being his homage to Red Sonja. Then we had the Red Cover [SFWA Bulletin #202], and people complained it was too red. I am not kidding. I would get emails over the weirdest things. I never got as much complaint mail when I edited seventy issues of a game magazine for TSR.
ES: What, if anything, can be done to help the SFWA community get past this and move on?
JR: I have no idea. I quit. I’m like, “I don’t want any part of this! I’m done dancing!” You know, all I wanted to do was edit a magazine. I thought it looked nice and it came out on time. I’m actually having a better time now that I don’t have a magazine to edit for the first time in years. So it was kind of like perfect timing. I still edit anthologies from time to time. I’m getting to write more books now. I’ve got one out now, and I’ve got two more coming out next year.
ES: What projects are you currently working on, or plan to work on next?
JR: I’m actually doing a work-for-hire for a friend, I’m writing a Shadowrun novel. And then I’m going to go back to a murder mystery that I started. Yeah, I know I should write fantasy and science fiction, that’s what I’m known for, but every once in a while you get an idea and you just have to follow through with this idea.
ES: It sounds like your background as a crime reporter would be ideal for a mystery writer.
JR: Yeah. Yeah, I’ve got a few mystery plots that I want to get to—so I’m gonna do it, because why not? I’ve had agents tell me, “You should stick to fantasy and science fiction,” and I’m like, “Yeah, but I got these other ideas.” If I gotta sell it under a different name, then I’ll sell it under a different name, and I don’t have a problem with that.
ES: And do you have anything that’s come out recently or will be coming out soon?
JR: Uh, yes, The Cauldron, which I wrote with my buddy Gene DeWeese. It’s out now in an ebook, and comes out in print in January. It’s my first science fiction novel, true science fiction. I’d done fantasy and urban fantasy, but this is my first full line formal entry into sci-fi. So I had fun with that. And then there’s the urban fantasies I have coming out this year with Kevin J. Anderson’s Wordfire Press. They kinda lend themselves to sequels, so I hope they do well enough that I can write more of them.
ES: And what are the names of those?
JR: The first one is called Pockets of Darkness, and that’s set in New York City. It’s pretty gritty, I’d even call it light horror. And the other one is The Love-Haight Case Files. It’s set in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. It’s about attorneys who represent undead and goblins and gargoyles. It’s sort of like spindling Law & Order with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You’re just kinda swirling all that up and add in a dash of Remington Steele and Ghost and Mrs. Muir. I really liked that one.
ES: Well, thank you for the interview!
For a taste of Jean’s writing, you can read a free urban fantasy short story at her website, http://www.jeanrabe.com.
* This was my mistake. I meant to say “controversy.”